Their career was cut short by the Nazis' discriminatory racial laws, but the Comedian Harmonists' impact was immeasurable. The a cappella sextet - the world's first boy band - was founded 85 years ago.
The audience swooned when they switched to their charming falsetto in songs like "Veronika, der Lenz ist da" or "Liebling, mein Herz lässt dich grüßen."
From Berlin to Munich, from Amsterdam to Paris, fans clamored for tickets all over Europe in the 1930s. "One press notice was enough: 'The Comedian Harmonists are coming to town!' No posters, nothing. We sold out immediately," bass Robert Biberti said years later.
Wanted: beautiful voices
It all started when Harry Frommermann placed a rather nondescript ad in a local Berlin newspaper on December 18, 1927. It read: "Attention. Rare opportunity. Tenor, bass (professional singer not over 25), very musical, nice sounding voice, wanted for one-of-a-kind ensemble. Kindly give times available."
Frommermann had recently been thrown out of acting school, which meant the end of his acting career, and he wanted to try his hand as a musician. Eleven days later, on December 29, 1927, some 70 men came to his tiny attic apartment for an audition. The economy was turbulent and they were hoping for a job, but most of the candidates didn't have the talent Frommermann was looking for.
He was just about ready to give up, but then Robert Biberti arrived. He not only impressed Frommermann with his beautiful voice, but also shared his passion for The Revellers. The American vocal quartet was to serve as a model for the new ensemble.
Biberti then got two of his choir colleagues involved - Ari Leschnikoff of Bulgaria and Roman Cycowski from Poland. Erich Collin and pianist Erwin Bootz, whom everyone called "Handsome Erwin," joined in later.
Defeat and triumph
The first rehearsal took place in early January 1928 in Frommermann's drafty Berlin apartment. But their first audition five months later in the Berlin Scala vaudeville hall ended in fiasco. It was unfortunate that he sold entertainment, said the manager, because the sextet was more suited to a funeral parlor.
But the group didn't get discouraged. Their agent Bruno Levy managed to secure another audition that summer with Berlin vaudeville baron Erik Charell. He recognized the ensemble's potential and hired them for 120 Reichsmarks per evening, which was a lot of money at the time.
On September 28, 1928, the Comedian Harmonists had the first performance of their career in Berlin's Grosses Schauspielhaus.
From there, the ensemble's success skyrocketed. At the beginning, they went from theater to theater with just three or four songs and were a small part of the program, but the audiences were soon begging for more. By 1929, they were receiving lucrative invitations to other major German cities from Hamburg to Cologne.
It was in Leipzig on January 26, 1930 that the Comedian Harmonists gave their first full-length concert - and left the theater as superstars. "The shouting, the clamoring of the audience - I was flabbergasted," remembered Ari Leschnikoff 45 years later. "I shed tears of joy."
Coming down from the pinnacle
The following years were marked by one success after another for the first German boy band. In 1930, the Comedian Harmonists gave their first concert abroad, in Amsterdam, and also sang for the first time in a film. Their song "Ein Freund, ein gutter Freund" (A friend, a good friend) from the film "The Three from the Filling Station" became an instant hit.
In a time when a quarter pound of sausage cost 12 pfennig, the young singers earned 50,000 to 60,000 Reichsmark per year. They thoroughly enjoyed their prestige, the fancy cars and the women. And they ignored the dark cloud that was gathering over them.
In 1933, the Nazis came to power in Germany. Three members of the sextet were Jewish. The Comedian Harmonists weren't interested in politics and thought their popularity gave them immunity. But as early as 1933, some of their concerts were canceled because, in Nazi Germany, Jews weren't wanted on stage.
In May 1934, they were banned altogether. The Comedian Harmonists gave their last concert in Munich. "I don't even need to describe the feelings we had when we performed," Robert Biberti said later. "We bowed and a hurricane erupted. The entire audience got on its feet; they cheered and tromped, and we stood up there like drenched poodles."
Baritone Roman Cycowski, who later became a Jewish cantor, added, "When we finished the concert, everyone shouted, 'Auf Wiedersehen, see you again!'"
The ban led to internal disagreements and divided the group. The three non-Jewish members demanded a higher percentage of their earnings at foreign concerts, claiming the other three were responsible for the fact that they couldn't perform in Germany.
In the end, they agreed to split their pay equally six ways, as they had before, and they made ends meet with performances outside of Germany, singing their hits in several languages. In Italy the Comedian Harmonists shone with the overture to "Barber of Seville;" on the aircraft carrier "Saratoga" in New York they impressed 80,000 US soldiers; and in France they were already well-known for their song "Voilà, les gars de la marine."
Nevertheless, the group split up in the end. Biberti, Leschnikoff and Bootz stayed in Germany, while Collin, Cyycowski and Frommermann emigrated and tried to re-establish the Comedian Harmonists in Vienna.
The three in Germany partnered with three new non-Jewish singers and toured the country under the name Meister-Sextett until 1941. But their light-hearted music was considered contrary to the war effort and was finally banned as well.
"For both groups, for those who emigrated as well as for us, the old standard never came back because the team spirit wasn't there anymore," said Robert Biberti decades later.
All six singers survived the war, but didn't reunite even after it was over. Their songs, however, remain unforgotten.